HC Deb 09 June 1809 vol 14 cc967-75
Mr. Prendergast

rose, to submit to the house a motion for papers which he had made the other day, but which had been withdrawn upon a point of form. As he had before explained himself sufficiently upon the subject, he saw no necessity for entering into it at any great length at this time. He maintained that his statement had not been overturned by any thing that had fallen from the hon. chairman (Mr. Grant). He had stated the law and applied it to the fact, and on both points he was perfectly correct. The hon. chairman had said, that he had derived his information from a memorial of some interested persons. He denied this, and observed, that he had not seen that memorial till after he had given his notice. The hon. gent. then entered more particularly into a statement of the grievances under which the Private Trader laboured, from the conduct of the Directors. He read the Order which they had sent out to India, in 1803, as to the rates of freight with which the private merchant was to be charged; which were, 11l. per ton during peace, and 14l. per ton during war. This rate was acted upon by the merchants, in their arrangements. No other order had been made on this subject till the 10th of August 1805. The hon. chairman had said, that this was the rate fixed during peace, but that a period of war altered the circumstances; and that an order had been immediately sent out to fix a higher rate. This the hon. gent. denied, and asserted that on the contrary, an order had been published, in l805, confirming the same rates of freight that had been established in June 1803. The merchants, considering these as binding upon the Company, had made their arrangements accordingly. The hon. chairman had stated, that no extra ships had arrived in India in the years 1805–6, because these ships had been turned aside from their destination, for political purposes, over which the directors had no controul. But this was one of the hardships of which the private merchants particularly complained. They were unable to procure a supply of ships independent of the Company. They made their arrangements in reliance upon the Company; and then, when they most wanted vessels, the ships were taken away for political purposes, leaving the merchant completely in the lurch. This was an extreme hardship, and one to which the private merchant ought not, in any view, to be subjected; but more especially when the Company, by the act of 1793, was bound to afford every facility and accommodation. The hon. gent. next stated, that in 1806 it so happened that the Company had some spare Tonnage in their regular ships, and in these, therefore, the property of private merchants was conveyed from India to this country. The private merchants of course thought that as they had no alternative, they would only be subject to the rates of freight which the Company had promulgated. But when the goods arrived in this country they were charged with 44l. per ton, which as the directors had the power of exacting in their own hands, the merchants were forced to pay. He had before called this injustice and oppression, and he would now add that it was fraud likewise, because the directors had employed the power which they possessed to violate their own agreement, and to disappoint the just expectations of the private merchants. Mr. Prendergast proceeded to observe, that from 1805 till July 1807, no other advertisement had been published; and consequently in the year 1806 and part of 1807, the private merchants naturally concluded that they would be permitted to convey their property at the old rates. But to all this the hon. chairman had replied, that a specific bargain had been made by the merchants with the government of Bengal. He (Mr. Prendergast) himself was on the spot; he was a good deal interested, and yet he had heard nothing of any such bargain. He then remarked, that the directors had written to the governor-general in 1807, fixing the rates for the previous three years. The hon. gent. read the rates; season 1804, 30l. per ton in regular ships; season 1805, 32l. per ton in regular ships, and 22l. in extra ships; season 1806, 26l. per ton in extra ships, and 30l. 10s. in regular ships. Not satisfied with the agreement which they had made with the Chancellor of the Exchequer, for the accommodation of the Private Trade, they had sent out orders to their government in India to charge these high rates of freight there, while here, by the strong arm of power, they charged treble the rate which they themselves had fixed. An hon. gent. below (Mr. Wallace) had, on a former occasion, characterized his conduct as unjust; but when the house considered the facts which he had now stated, he was satisfied it would allow that he was fully warranted in retorting the accusation, and in saying that the proceed- ing of the hon. gent. was not only unjust, but marked by a total ignorance of the subject on which be had spoken.—Mr. Prendergast then adverted to the propositions which the Directors had made to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, in which they had stated their readiness to afford the private trader every accommodation, and to allow him freight on the most reasonable terms. This obligation they had violated, and had subjected the private trader to the consequences of the prodigality with which they managed their concerns. But he maintained, that they had no right thus to waste the property of their constituents, and of the public, upon whom their debts must ultimately fall. He had laid before the house facts which it was impossible to controvert; and his statement, he contended, was in no respect either unjust or erroneous. He concluded by moving, That the copy of the Memorial of the Directors to the Treasury, in 1797, some time ago presented to the house, should be re-printed, &c. &c.

Mr. R. Dundas

observed, that the observations of the hon. gent. were premature, as the act of 1793, and the other matters, would come under consideration, when the house was furnished with all the requisite information on the subject. These papers would not comprehend the whole of the question, and it was not therefore upon them alone that it ought to be discussed. He blamed the hon. gent. for censuring the conduct of the Directors, before the necessary documents were before the house.

Mr. Wallace

maintained, that though the principal facts stated by the hon. gent. were correct, the inference which he drew from them against the directors was wrong. The hon. chairman had stated, that after the extra ships had been diverted from their intended destination for political purposes, the merchants themselves had requested to be allowed to ship their goods on board the regular vessels, upon payment of the same rate of freight as the Company paid, which was 44l. per ton; and yet this favour was converted into a charge of oppression and injustice. He wished the hon. gent. had condescended to explain one fact. The private merchants themselves, as ship owners, had let their ships to the Company at from 19 to 21l. per ton. How then could they expect that the Company should be able to re-let their own ships to them at 14l. per ton? The real state of the case was, that as to the charge in 1804, orders had been sent out after the advertisement to raise the rate on account of the war. The orders did not arrive in proper time, and the result was, that the directors had settled the account at 14l. according to the original advertisement.

Mr. C. Grant,

repeated what he had formerly said, that the house could not properly come to a decision upon these points, till the whole of the circumstances came before it. The agreement in 1793, he observed, went no further than furnishing the private merchant with 3,000 tons of shipping. He next gave a short history of the transactions between the Company and the private merchants. The Company had resisted the project of carrying home produce in India built ships, but in 1802 an arrangement was made by which the Company engaged to furnish the private merchants with English built ships, subject to the regulations of the Company, at the low rate of 14l. per ton. But when the war commenced, it was necessary to raise the rate of freight, and orders were, sent out to raise it to 20l.; but it having been stated that it had been already signified to the private merchants that the rate would be only 14l. for the year 1804, the directors acceded to this. As the war continued the expences rose, but still the charges were within what the Company themselves paid. His hon. friend (Mr. Wallace) had truly stated that the merchants themselves had charged the Company at the rate of from 19 to 21l. in 1803; and how could they expect to be supplied cheaper? As to the want of shipping at a particular period, he repeated that this had arisen from the vessels having been detained at Cork, Madeira, &c. for political purposes; and it was impossible that the Company could either controul this; or be ready with vessels to meet such an accident. In the year 1805 the private merchants had been furnished with tonnage, in the regular ships at the rate paid by the Company, and what more could they expect? There was no law or convention in this case that could give the character of injustice to these transactions. As to publications in the gazettes in India, he could not answer for these; but he could aver, that here the extra ships, in 1805–6, were charged at only 14l. with some exceptions from particular circumstances.

Mr. Howorth.—Mr. Speaker

As the state of the India Company must soon force itself on the attention of parliament, not- withstanding any attempts to conceal facts, or suppress the evidence, I am not aware that any other benefit will result from the present motion, than that general information, which naturally arises out of such a discussion: With respect to the India Trade, undoubtedly, Sir, the restrictions and interruptions which have been imposed on the free merchants, and the extravagant price of freight demanded of them, have produced the effect of diverting the legitimate trade of India into clandestine courses, by forcing a great part of British capital to pass under foreign flags. But I think it rather unfair to charge the honourable Directors with making this exorbitant demand for freight, for whatever blame may attach to the expensive system under which they act, it surely could not be reasonably expected, that they should give facilities to the free merchants and promote their objects, by charging a lower rate of freight than the Company were paying, at a certain loss to themselves. Whenever a corrective shall be applied to the abuses of the Indian trade, it will probably be found to consist in this, in enabling the British merchants to bring their own goods upon their own ships, subject however to the supervision and controul of the East India Company, to be freighted and refreighted, to be imported and exported through their offices, the goods and merchandize to be deposited in their warehouses, in short, in a system, which will enable the British merchant and natives under British protection, to trade upon equal terms with the merchants of every other country: Do this, and you will bring the whole trade of India into the Thames, and for this plain reason. If the terms were equal, the security would be infinitely greater. Sir, I shall take this opportunity of adverting to a circumstance, which though irrelevant to the present motion, is not altogether unimportant. In May 1808, a Report was presented to this house by the Committee appointed to consider the affairs of India: in that Report an account current was stated between government and the East India Company, by which account it appeared that a balance was due from government to the Company of 1,500,419l. This account was signed by Mr. Wittwer, an authorized agent on the part of government, and by Mr. Wright the accomptant for the Company. In consequence of this Report it was moved by the right hon. the Chancellor of the Exchequer, that the sum of one million and one half should be paid to the East India Company in liquidation of this debt, leaving a balance of only 419l. due from government to the Company. In the annual account of the East India Company just printed, I find inserted as part of the Company's assets, a statement of, "By what due from government 960,000l." It is true this charge is stated with this comment "that the Committee in their report having suspended for further examination such parts of the Pay Office demands as have been objected to on the part of the Company, the account is still open for further investigation." Sir, the fact is this, in the account signed by the authorized agents of the parties, two Items are admitted upon estimate, which necessarily is subject to revision; and one charge was suspended altogether, and very properly suspended, because the Pay Office accounts were not in that state of correctness necessary to conclude them, leaving that head of course open for further adjustment: But, Sir, I well remember when the million and half was voted in liquidation of the debt from government to the East India Company, an hon. friend of mine (Mr. Whitbread) put a question to the right hon. the President of the Board of Controul, Whether that account so settled was to be considered as final, and conclusive? and he was answered in the affirmative. I have taken this opportunity of mentioning this circumstance, lest such a paper suffered to remain upon the table unnoticed, may hereafter be taken advantage of. Another circumstance, I would mention, is, that various letters which I have received from India, concur in stating the discontents of the Company's officers, and the disaffection of the native troops. This is principally attributed to a system of foisting king's officers into the native corps, persons unacquainted with their language, and unused to their customs. At Bombay it was intended to mount additional cavalry, and it was ordered to be officered by king's officers from Madras: this excited such resentment on the part of the Company's officers, and such discontent amongst the native troops, to whom their officers were endeared by long services, and with whom for their gallant conduct at Bhurtpoor, they had received the thanks of lord Lake; that Mr. Duncan, the governor of Bombay, prudently withheld the publication of the order, and remonstrated with the government of Bengal on the subject. It has also been stated to me, that an order has been issued for drafting off annually from every grenadier battalion 12 picked men, in order to form a crack corps. To the hon. Chairman (Mr. Grant) it will be unnecessary to expatiate on the mischiefs which may result from such measures. I had hoped that the mutiny at Vellore, at the same time that it afforded an aweful, would also have afforded an instructive lesson, of the absurdity of inforcing British regulations, upon Indian armies. On that occasion the lives of near a thousand men, of whom upwards of two hundred were British soldiers, were sacrificed to a turban and a whisker; if that pernicious folly had not been stopped, your whole native army would have been lost by it: If such a lesson and such an example be disregarded, are you equally indifferent about the consequence? I am sorry to observe, that in this house very few know what is doing in India, and I fear very few care.

Mr. R. Dundas

admitted that he had allowed that the account between the Company and the public had been closed, with respect to the articles which they had under their consideration. Still, however, the Company might prefer a claim, but there might be also a claim on the part of the public to meet it, and till the Indian regimental accounts were audited, it was impossible to say how the matter exactly stood. As to the practices respecting the troops, he had good reason to believe that the hon. gent. was mistaken.

Mr. Peter Moore

contended, that every paper ought to be laid on the table that tended to throw any light on the state of the India trade. He strongly objected to the notion, that the question was not to be discussed till the Company came to the house for a renewal of their charter. If no information was to be given till then, the private merchants would be left completely in the dark, and very hardly dealt by.

Mr. Prendergast

observed, that he stated facts from unquestionable authority. The hon. chairman had said, that the Company was by law obliged to furnish only 3,000 tons of shipping. He had understood, however, they were obliged to furnish as much as the private merchant might find necessary to carry home his produce. He always understood that the quantity was to be regulated by the demand. The act on that point spoke for itself. He was surprised to hear the hon. chairman say, that the extra ships were only charged at the rate of 14l. per ton, at the very time that he himself had stated them to have been carried away upon some political expedition. He denied having ever heard of the bargain with the government of Bengal, to which the hon. chairman had alluded, and remarked, that no reply had been attempted to his statement of the rates of freight, that had been ordered in 1807.

The several motions were then put and agreed.

Mr. Prendergast

afterwards, alluding to the circumstance he had mentioned on the former night, of the dismissal of Mr. Samuel Middleton, a servant of the Company, for being concerned in the trade of indigo, while the chairman of the Court of Directors (Mr. Grant) was allowed to bring that article home from India, in violation of the bye-law, that no Director should be concerned in any trading speculation, and considering what he conceived a partiality, as likely to produce an ill effect on the respect which ought to be kept up for all the transactions of the Company, moved "That there be laid before the house a copy of the Oath of office taken by the Court of Directors; the bye-laws of the Company, prohibiting any trade being carried on by any director; the bye-law making an exception in favour of Mr. Grant; and the Minutes of the Resolution of the governor and Council of Bengal on the subject."

Mr. Grant

made a short explanation of the circumstance, as far as he was concerned, of the establishment of the trade in indigo, from India to this country, of which he was the original promoter, and in the manufacture of which he had embarked a very large capital. Upon his return from India, he had been elected into the office of Director, when no law existed against that board being concerned in trade; afterwards, in 1795, that law was enacted, and he upon that occasion stated his case to the Company, and the consequence was, that, upon two general courts it was agreed, that he did not come within the spirit of the regulation. If he were compelled to choose between his situation as director, and the giving up of his property, he should be compelled to elect the former. He, however, had no objection to the motion.

Mr. R. Dundas

saw no ground for the motion, as there was no charge against the hon. chairman: and, if there was, it did not come under the jurisdiction of that house. The whole of it was, that the hon. chairman having promoted a most important branch of commerce, was allowed to retain his property in it; this was no circumstance to induce a supposition that he would act contrary to his duty as a director; and it would be a bad reward for his past services, to deprive him and the Company of his future exertions.

Sir John Anstruther

concurred in the same sentiments; and said that the Company had a right to make what regulations and what exceptions they pleased. The case was this: Samuel Middleton, a judicial servant of the Company, had, as such, taken an oath he would not be concerned in any trade whatever; in breach of which he had entered into a trade in the article of indigo; for which he had been dismissed their service. Where, then, was the resemblance between his case and that of the hon. chairman? He was decidedly against the motion.

Mr. Peter Moore

declared, he had taken an active part in promoting the bye-law, which excluded all concerned in trade from the directory; if any one arraigned that, it should be in the India house, and not there. The fact was, the hon. chairman was not concerned in trading, but merely brought home the produce of his estate, like any other property. He advised the hon. mover to withdraw his motion, and apply himself to the India house, where he would find justice.

Mr. Prendergast,

in consequence of what had been stated, consented to withdraw his motion, which, after a few words from the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who objected to it, as wishing it to be negatived, was agreed to without a division.